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The Sharp Edge of a Knife: Part 1 of 3
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 30 June 2006, 4:04 am

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       "Have you ever felt nostalgic for something you never had?" Ahmed Temsik asked his friend.

       "I believe that's a contradiction in terms," Simon Campbell said, with a hint of laughter.

       A single snowflake fell and quickly melted on Ahmed's nose. He looked up at the overcast sky, a bleak expanse of grey darkened by the approaching night. He sighed, and breathed deeply the cold mountain air. "Today, in town, while I stood by the fire lit outside the church, I had the most striking recollection of camping. You know, old style camping, a tent out in the wilderness next to a wood fire." He looked meaningfully over at Simon. "I was raised in New York City. I've never come close to camping. I've never even wanted to."

       "Yea, I get that sometimes, I guess," Simon answered after some consideration. "It's probably some long lost memory that gets confused over time."

       Ahmed shook his head adamantly. "No. I was there. I didn't just see it in my mind's eye; I felt it. I breathed that air, felt the ground with my hands. It was fleeting – but it was real."

       "Are you alright, Ahmed?" Simon asked with a slightly worried tone.

       Ahmed turned to look him directly in the eyes. "What do you think, Simon?"

       Simon's eyes wandered past his friend's face to the object that dominated much of the sky above; hovering a hundred meters above the forest floor many miles in the distance was a thing of terrifying beauty. It was huge, many times the size of the largest craft mankind had ever conceived, and exponentially more deadly. Its smooth surface reflected the dull, retreating sunlight with an unnatural brilliance, its cool iridescence bathing the snow-covered ground in a soft purple hue. The exterior curved continuously, forming a bulbous bow, a wickedly pointed stern, and on either side a dizzyingly ornate series of concavities and superstructures. Even from the distance of many miles, the gentle glow of thousands of windows and elaborate symbols strewn across the surface slowly began to outshine the dying light of the sun.

       One could see at a glance it was a thing built to inspire awe in both friend and foe, and neither man who now gazed upon it had any misconceptions as to which side of the line they stood on. For them, and for all the people of this planet, the Covenant Capital Ship was a harbinger of death.

       "They have not yet fired, or indicated that they are planning to," Simon said consolingly, his eyes not leaving the horrifying sight. "They have not done much of anything, in fact."

       Ahmed snorted softly. "Do you think that means our lives can not now be measured in hours, if not minutes?" he asked tiredly. He got to one knee and stuck his hand in the snow. He brought out a handful and cupped his other hand around it, packing it tightly into a ball. It felt good to feel snow again. It felt good to feel anything.

       Simon finally ripped his eyes away from the alien craft and turned to face the brighter light of the town. He rested a hand on Ahmed's shoulder and squeezed it gently. "We should check on the package. It might get rough down there."

       It was an absurd concern, as they both knew, for all on the planet would soon be less than dust in the wind, but Ahmed conceded without a word. They both needed something to distract them from the coming darkness, and both hoped to find solace in performing their duty. Ahmed threw the snowball he had made with all his strength into the trees of the forest. It quickly disappeared from sight and disintegrated in the branches silently. As they all soon would.

       The two men were Marines of the United Nations Space Command, and both had joined before the draft had been issued. Even so, neither had ever fought the Covenant. They had been attached to dozens of different ships each, many of which had long since been destroyed, but as the obsolete human weaponry did little against the might of the Covenant, space battles had never lasted long enough to warrant personnel combat. As such, they had gained much experience with military bureaucracy and almost none with combat; therefore, they were the perfect choice in escorting Miriam Cohen, a Senator of the United Nations Governing Council, back to Earth.

       They had not been on the planet for more than an hour before the Covenant ship had entered the atmosphere to take position, seemingly intentionally, over the docking platform where they had landed their shuttle. When they asked Miriam if there were any alternate vessels on the planet they could take instead, she told them that there were not. Ephrath III was an underdeveloped colony with a tiny population, and all the slipspace capable ships had left transporting as many people as possible to the safer Inner Colonies. They had stopped coming after Reach had fallen. Since they had decided that attempting to get to the shuttle they had rode in on was suicidal and may in fact provoke the glassing of the colony, they were trapped on the surface, their fate bound to that of the planet and all its inhabitants.

       Ahmed and Simon descended from the precipice on which they had stood and entered the edge of town. The community was not a large one, though there had been a time when more than ten thousand souls had called this place home. Over half had left, however, in the evacuation that had preceded the fall of Reach. The rest had congregated elsewhere, coming together in the face of impending doom, to share comfort and to bear the heavy burden of despair as one. This created an atmosphere that, despite being in full battle gear and carrying military shotguns, made both soldiers tense up and unconsciously check their corners. The empty buildings that loomed ominously on either side of them, dark because of the ordered blackout, suddenly seem to conceal innumerable and unspeakable dangers. Shapeless figures lurked in every crooked alley and behind every boarded window. The darkness that had fallen upon the town was all consuming, oppressive, and unambiguously evil.

       With heart stopping suddenness, a window crashed to the soldiers' right. They switched on their flashlights, hoping to blind whatever had caused the noise, and spun in the direction from which it had come. The yellow light shone upon two small faces, and was quickly followed by a sharp and impulsive expletive. In a startling flash, the two figures were gone, sprinting down the street as fast as their legs would carry them, one of them screaming loudly.

       "They're just kids, Ahmed," Simon breathed, white faced. "They're just kids."

       Kids hard at work looting their town. A quick sweep of their flashlights down the remainder of the street revealed dozens of broken windows and armfuls of supplies dumped unceremoniously on the road. To these young kids, no older than thirteen or fourteen, the abandonment of their town was little more than good fun. They did not see the danger of the Covenant ship, at least with any clarity. Even if they did, they did not care; they lived in the moment, and the moment was eternal. There was something obscenely comforting in the destruction of these small shops and homes. Both men stopped in their tracks and appreciated the mindset of youth until the kids were out of sight and the last trace of the screaming evaporated into the night.

       At the end of the street, a dim glow began to emanate from further within the town. The light danced along the ground and on the sides of the buildings, illuminating comely brick homes and welcoming stores. The foreboding air that had followed the two Marines into the town dissipated precipitously as they came nearer and nearer to the light's source. Eventually, they emerged into an open square, at the far end of which stood a modest limestone church, an elegant steeple its only adornment. For the size of the town, it was quite a large church, but it was not big enough by half today. Outside the building, all across the square, thousands of people camped out in drab tents and other makeshift shelters despite the increasing cold. Numerous fires had sprung up around the camp, though they were all dominated by a single, large bonfire in the center of the plaza around which many people gathered and talked in hushed voices. The warmth and light this scene should have provided the soldiers was severely diminished by the many signs people had set up or were holding on which "God save us" had been scrawled in some way or another.

       There were no atheists on Ephrath tonight.

       They continued on past the square along a street that ran across its top, back into the darkness which, against the light that extended for a short distance down the pavement, seemed blacker than ever. The darkness consumed the cheerful light of the bonfire until they were left with nothing but the gaunt outline of the town against the faint light of the vanished sun and eerie glow of the Covenant craft.

       "Why does she insist on living in the abandoned part of town?" Simon asked nervously.

       "Suffering in silence? Out of sight, out of mind?" Ahmed suggested, his voice sounding unnaturally loud in the great emptiness. He could not have cared less for the senator's reasoning, except for the mild inconvenience of reaching her quarters, but merely wished to hear himself speak. "Maybe she doesn't feel she belongs with the others."

       Simon shook his head, also deciding to discuss the matter at length in order to fill the unsettling silence. "That doesn't make any sense. She decided to stay behind on this backwater colony to assist with the evacuation and then refuses to be with them in their time of greatest need?"

       "I admit, I wondered that myself," Ahmed admitted. "Maybe, at the end, we can ask her, and save her the awkwardness that would follow."

       While it seemed a terribly inappropriate quip, it somehow fit the moment, and Simon sniffed appreciatively. "Yea."

       They suddenly came upon a dim light that shone through a frosted window and Ahmed signaled to Simon to be quiet. "We're here," he announced unnecessarily. He approached the door of the small brick house and knocked; the sharp noise somehow seemed suppressed now.

       On the other side he heard the scuffling of someone looking through the peephole and accordingly he offered a small nod. The door opened immediately, revealing a pretty young girl who graciously extended a welcoming arm. Ahmed entered, and beckoned Simon to follow. "Hello, Sarah," he said warmly to the girl.

       "How are you, sir?" she asked. The pleasantries seemed absurd given the situation, and the three of them chuckled softly. In the chaos that had descended upon the town, any pretense of class and hierarchy had vanished with the last vestiges of hope.

       "Lieutenant Temsik," came a commanding, feminine voice from the darkness of the room. "What do you have to report?" A woman stepped into the flickering light of the window-side candle to greet the Marines. Miriam Cohen was slightly less than middle aged, and though she looked much younger, a number of wrinkles betrayed her years. Despite this, she was exceptionally good-looking, sporting dark brown hair tied back in a ponytail casually tied with a few stray hairs that crept across her chestnut brown eyes. She was dressed in plain clothes and wore no jewelry – she looked so unlike a senator, in fact, that Ahmed was momentarily taken aback.

       "We patrolled the northern and eastern perimeter," he said eventually. "The ship has remained silent and there has been no activity anywhere in the surrounding area. It's been quiet. Deathly quiet," he added.

       "Obviously we were limited to a small area of surveillance," Simon offered. "We're only two men. And the police patrolling the south and west didn't exactly seem enthusiastic. Most of them are in the square, anyway."

       "Understood, Lieutenant," Miriam said heavily. "I do not see the point of any further excursions of this nature, at least for tonight." They all briefly exchanged grim looks at this, silently wondering whether or not they last the night. "In the meantime, gentlemen," she continued hurriedly, "please make yourselves comfortable. Unless you have somewhere to go."

       The Marines smiled and shook their heads. Miriam retreated back into the darkness and lit a candle at the other end of the room; Sarah sat at the desk at the window to continue her work on a computer; Ahmed and Simon scoped out a place to sleep, on the remote chance that they would find any. Yet, as they all carried on with their separate tasks, there came a moment, a fleeting second, when all four pairs of eyes glanced at the window to behold the faint, cold glow in the distance that heralded a future steeped in darkness and death.

       Tonight, they would sleep on the sharp edge of a knife.